PROVO — Brigham Young University student David Sneddon disappeared somewhere in China last month and is now the subject of search efforts by family members and Chinese and American officials.
The last person known to have seen Sneddon is an innkeeper near Tiger Leaping Gorge, a famed but remote and dangerous area in western China. Sneddon reportedly left some of his belongings with the innkeeper on Aug. 10 so he could travel light.
But Sneddon, 24, who is from Providence, Cache County, never came back for his things, missed flights to Korea and the United States and hasn't returned to BYU, where he is enrolled but absent from fall classes.
His family expressed gratitude for the help of the Chinese government, which has organized a 200-person search party.
"Every night, the U.S. Embassy has been updating our family," said Jennifer Sneddon, David's sister-in-law. "That's been very helpful. They tell us what is going on, what they're planning to do and what they've found, which so far isn't very much. The last one told us the Chinese have 200 police officers on the ground searching."
Gruesomely, she said, the search party found two dead bodies, but neither was Sneddon.
Sneddon's father, Roy, and two brothers — Sneddon is one of 11 children — flew to China this week to join the effort.
The last American to see Sneddon was George Bailey, his traveling companion and roommate in Beijing. The two Chinese language majors roomed together last year in the China House — BYU's on-campus Chinese language residence.
For a month this summer, they were together in a Beijing apartment, where Sneddon began taking Chinese courses at a local university in April and Bailey was working on his language skills.
"It's a difficult thing because I don't know how to respond," Bailey said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I don't know what's happening with David. I don't know if he's dead or alive.
"It's very strange for me to know I'm the last of his acquaintances to see him."
Bailey said Sneddon wanted to tour the country before returning home and persuaded Bailey to go part of the way with him. Sneddon last accessed his bank account on Aug. 2, and the pair arrived by train in the southern Chinese village of Yangshuo, where they biked and did some sightseeing, then parted ways on Aug. 9.
Bailey returned to Beijing while Sneddon headed farther west, to Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang in the Yunnan Province.
Tiger Leaping Gorge runs between Haba Snow Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and is a popular attraction for backpackers. Travel Web sites claim the gorge is the world's deepest and among the narrowest and longest. It is dotted by 7,000-foot cliffs and bisected by the Golden Sands River, which turns to whitewater rapids in more than a dozen places.
Ancient legend holds that a tiger used a large rock in the middle of the river as a stepping stone to leap across the gorge at its narrowest point. A complete hike through the gorge is more than 20 miles long.
Sneddon grew up in Nebraska, where he graduated from Lincoln East High School. The family subsequently moved to Providence, and David enrolled at BYU.
Jennifer Sneddon said backpacking is a family tradition and that David could handle rugged Tiger Leaping Gorge.
"His family often went to Wind River Mountain (range) in Wyoming, which is very treacherous, very difficult," she said. "There's not any way that gorge is out of his range of ability."
The family has not signed a privacy waiver, so embassy officials are prohibited from commenting on the case, said Josh Cartin, a U.S. public affairs officer in Beijing.
However, the U.S. State Department confirmed that Sneddon is missing and that the Chinese government is spearheading a search for him.
"We're in touch with the family and continue to cooperate with Chinese authorities on Mr. Sneddon's whereabouts," State Department spokesman Noel Clay told the Deseret Morning News.
Family members are convinced Sneddon is still alive, and Bailey and other friends cling to hope that Sneddon is safe. BYU senior James Toone, who expected to have Sneddon in two classes with him this semester, believes Sneddon might have become lost.
"I feel that everything will be fine," he said. "I don't feel he's been abducted. I've been over there. I know the culture. I think he'll be all right."
Matt Christensen, who heads BYU's Chinese language section, helped Sneddon secure the university courses in Beijing. Christensen said Sneddon's disappearance is well-publicized in China.
"It's very public in China," Christensen said. "There are posters plastered and a search party. He has disappeared, and it is a very serious thing."
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said university officials are deeply concerned.
"Our prayers are with David Sneddon and his family," she said. "We are hopeful this will have a positive outcome, and we'll do all that we can to help."
Officials have told the family that Sneddon was last seen Aug. 10 — the day Sneddon's e-mail communication with friends and family also ceased, said Toone, who is a Chinese major and roomed with Sneddon last year in the China House.
Sneddon, a senior minoring in Korean who served an LDS mission to Korea, was scheduled to fly to Korea Aug. 25 for a business meeting. He had lined up an appointment with a Korean firm for the Multiling Corp., where he worked part time.
"It is not in character for David to miss a business meeting," Jennifer Sneddon said. "He'd worked on setting up that meeting for month. It was a huge coup. When he didn't show up, that's when we were first concerned."
Bailey is as baffled as everyone else.
"I don't know," he said. "I would love to know, but I don't have any idea."